One thing I hear over and over from people is their frustration with email, text and telephone spam, which may or may not be the opening for scams. How you handle these unwanted messages can help determine whether they will stop, continue or become a flood.

For several months, every week I would get a couple of texts intended for “Rita.” Either she was headed for big trouble (last chance to pay a bill) or she had won a lot of money (up to $52,000 in emergency relief). These texts have dropped recently to zero. Why? Because I simply deleted them. No response is the secret to avoiding a cybercriminal’s opening gambit.

But not all unwanted messages are sent with criminal intent. If they are, then the messages are part of a scam. Some are just from companies that use an automated telemarketing service to find new business, which could be prohibited under our SPAM laws, and others are from companies that you have authorized to send you messages. How you categorize the sender determines how you’ll try to stop these unwelcome messages.

So before you hit an unsubscribe button, argue with a telemarketer or report spam to your email provider, identify the source type (legitimate, spam or possible scam) and then follow the actions for each below.

To be fair, legitimate mailings are frequently perceived as spam because recipients forget they actually gave permission to these senders. For most legitimate companies, authorization involves a couple of steps. For instance, if you sign up for a newsletter, you should receive a pending confirmation that requires you to click on a link back to the sender’s website, which then confirms your subscription. At this point, the company has a customer record for you.

Over time, you may forget that you subscribed, so messages look like spam to you. They are not; you just don’t want them. Alternately, you may have given permission to a company to communicate with you as part of a purchase or other interaction. Regardless, companies following SPAM laws will offer an easy-to-access unsubscribe method. So, the right thing to do is hit the unsubscribe button at the bottom of the unwanted email. Do the same for a text, which should also include an option to unsubscribe. If you no longer want to have any exchanges with the company, visit the website and delete your account.

Gmail is making it easier to eliminate legitimate but unwanted emails from your inbox. You’ll notice that when you log into your account, Gmail will display a message that says, “We’ve noticed you haven’t opened emails from X, would you like to unsubscribe?” Answer “yes” and this will be done for you.

Messages that can be classified as spam are those from companies you don’t know and did not grant privileges to communicate with you. The company is likely using a list from a third party provider that has your contact information on it. In this case, it is best to delete the message (email or text) or hang up the phone if it is a voice message. Do not unsubscribe or in any way respond. Why? Because these companies have automated their messages to reach thousands of people to identify which contacts are viable. Don’t let it be you. If you hit an unsubscribe button or link, you are telling the company that the email address or phone number is a good one and the unsolicited offers will continue. Similarly, blocking an email address or phone number rarely works because spammers just switch to a different address or number.

If you find yourself getting a lot of junk mail in your inbox, consider increasing the level of protection in the email settings. For instance, Outlook’s default is No Automatic Filtering so it catches only the most obvious spam. You can increase the protection to High to catch more suspected spam, but do occasionally check your junk mail folder for emails that were wrongly categorized.

Scam messages are similar to spam but are designed to do something bad such as infect your computer or con you into revealing sensitive data to steal your identity, access financial accounts or other harm. Unfortunately, once you’re aware of the intent, it’s likely too late. Best security practice rules apply: Don’t open emails, tap to open texts or answer the phone from unknown parties. Never click on links in an unsolicited email (sign-up confirmations that you requested are an exception) or on social media, avoid visiting unfamiliar websites and never give out your personal information to an incoming source.

Leslie Meredith has been writing about and reviewing personal technology for the past eight years. She has designed and manages several international websites and now runs the marketing for a global events company. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at asklesliemeredith@gmail.com.

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